What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“One of Mrs. Stoke’s hand bills relating to her boarding school in Charlestown.”
Newspaper notices accounted for the vast majority of advertisements that circulated in eighteenth-century America, yet they were not the only form of marketing familiar in the colonies or the new nation. Advertisers distributed a variety of other media, including broadsides, trade cards, billheads, catalogs, magazine wrappers, subscription notices, furniture labels, and handbills. Even more ephemeral than newspapers, relatively few of these items survive today. Those that are extant testify to a vibrant landscape of advertising in early America.
In some cases, newspaper notices alluded to other advertisements, providing a more complete story of their production and circulation in eighteenth-century America. For instance, printers, booksellers, auctioneers, and others sometimes noted in their advertisements that they provided free catalogs to prospective customers who wished to learn more about their inventory. Sometimes newspaper notices placed for purposes other than marketing consumer goods and services mentioned advertisements distributed via other media.
Such was the case in a notice that ran in the December 27, 1769, edition of the Georgia Gazette. Lewis Johnson informed the public that several certificates and bills had been “STOLEN out of a desk in [his] house.” Je offered a reward to “whoever will give any information of the thief.” To help anyone who might come in contact with the culprit identify the stolen bills, Johnson reported that the “money was put up on one of Mrs. Stokes’s hand bills relating to her boarding school in Charlestown.” That single sentence, embedded in a newspaper advertisement about a theft, revealed quite a bit about another advertisement that circulated separately. Not only had a schoolmistress in Charleston, South Carolina, hired a printer to produce handbills about her boarding school, at least one of those handbills found its way to Savannah, Georgia. Whether or not he had any interest in Stokes’s school, Johnson held onto the handbill, adapting it to his own purposes when he used it as a folder to contain his certificates and bills. A significant proportion of eighteenth-century advertising ephemera in the collections of research libraries and historical societies have been preserved among family papers related to finances and household management. This suggests that advertising was integrated into the everyday lives of early Americans. In this instance, Johnson encountered Stokes’s handbill regularly as he saw to his own finances (before the theft), while readers of the Georgia Gazette saw references to an advertisement that many might have also seen circulating elsewhere.